“A poet in our times is a semi-
barbarian in a civilized community.”
—Thomas Love Peacock
Something happened. The juice went out of it, the largest joy. There may arise figures analogous to Emily Dickinson, or even to John Clare, but no experienced lover of poetry expects a new Keats or a new Shelley or Hardy to appear in our generations. In his epigram, “Three Movements,” W.B. Yeats expressed the situation neatly:
Shakespearean fish swam the
sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets
coming to the hand;
What are all those fish that lie
gasping on the strand?
James Applewhite, in his Seas and Inland Journeys, has undertaken to delineate the disheartening change, the Big Chill, that came upon poetry after the great Romantics had finished their proper work. His conclusions are not surprising, but they are satisfying. His method is not systematic, nor even entirely rigorous, but it is comprehensive, and finally more solid than most other methods and systems now in fashion.
The indelible guildmark of contemporary criticism is its reductiveness, its insistence that the literary artist’s materials are only subjective and his finished works narcissistic, whatever his ostensible subject matter. Representation of nature has come to be as disallowed in Wordsworth as it is in the paintings of Jackson Pollock or Sam Francis, and it is symptomatic of the present state of criticism that Applewhite has to spend a number of early pages exorcising the puling ghost of Jacques Derrida.
The Romantic poets recognized, gladly and gratefully, the subjective elements they suffused into treatment and discovered in the subject matter itself. Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” formulation is famous, overly familiar, in its mystic phrasing: “Of all the mighty world / Of eye, and—both what they half create / And what perceive.” The recognition of the subjective necessity could hardly be put more plainly than Byron put it:
Are not the Mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?
But the Romantics’ insistence upon subjectivity is forceful because that was the novel aspect of their philosophy and psychology. The other aspect, the idea that nature exists apart from man, they took for granted. The world was there in front of them, and the artist’s task was threefold: to absorb as much of it as was spiritually possible, to project himself into it as thoroughly and sympathetically as possible, and to render his discoveries in dramatic artistic form.
The Romantic ego expanded and developed partly in response to the nature the poets knew. The grander nature was, the larger must be the human spirit that tried to encounter it. Otherwise there could be no possibility of understanding. And there had to be a continuity between nature and the human spirit, which the poets located in a common origin in infinity. Was not nature infinite? And was not the spirit that rose to meet it also infinite? Were man and nature not two indissoluble—and at happy moments, indistinguishable—parts of a single entity? To call the Romantic poet ego centric in a pejorative sense is rather like trying to insult a carpenter by calling him tool-oriented. The ego was the poet’s tool, an instrument used for sympathetic identification.
In Seas and Inland Journeys Apple white underscores the differences be tween Derrida and Wordsworth by means of similes contained in the works of both: “Derrida’s model of the relation of the writer’s mind to nature is masturbational: the writer never actually possesses the thing desired, but accepts words instead, whose role is to substitute for, to defer. Wordsworth proposed a different sexual metaphor for the imagination’s relation to reality. He called it a marriage, and looked upon both mind and nature as active (and interactive) partners.”
Applewhite’s sturdy contrast will not make him popular among the most fashionable critics, and it is easy to foresee the objections that will be brought against him. Derrida and his cousins are so firmly entrenched in the academic mind that his propositions are accepted as scientific fact. The critics will simply reiterate that the writer obviously cannot possess the thing desired by means of language.
Perhaps that is true, in a final sense, but it has to be equally true of every human endeavor involving nature: philosophy, art, science, and even grammatology. Language is anthropocentric, but it is less anthropocentric than any form of pure thought, whether abstract, analytic, logical or illogical, or wishful reverie. Language, in its attempt to engage with the objects of nature, first names and numbers them, and all the rest of our complex and ungainly engagement stems from these two basic operations. If they are mistaken attempts, then all the things that follow from them are sterile absurdities, including especially such concepts as mass, inertia, logic, and metalanguage.
In fact, this was just what the Romantic poets suspected, that language on its analytic side was inadequate to engage with nature in its infinite aspect. Once we begin counting, the Numberless escapes us; once we begin naming, the Nameless retreats farther from our senses. Once we pulverize our largest impression of nature, a lifeless dust is all that remains. “We murder to dissect.”
The poets needed a language which could deal with infinity as infinity and not just as an enormous catalog with only a few of the pages turned. The language they found was first of all objective; it was landscape itself, certain selected scenes of nature that indicated, and partly illustrated, the infinity of the whole. Mountains, oceans, deserts, fields, skies full of weather—these exhibited the spatial infinity of nature; ruins and rural scenes exhibit ed the temporal infinity. By 1712, Joseph Addison had glimpsed the tendency of future endeavor: “Our Imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its Capacity.” And by 1747, John Baillie was able to formulate part of the Romantic longing as clearly as it ever needed to be: “Where an Object is vast and at the same Time uniform, there is to the Imagination no Limits of its Vastness, and the Mind runs out into Infinity, continually creating as it were from the Pattern.”
One matter that has always troubled the precise reader is the vagueness of the Romantic vocabulary. Words like awesome, primordial, vast, skyey, endless, and so forth turn up with reflexive regularity and seem to deliver a limited content or none at all. There is, of course, justice in this criticism, but we also have to recognize that every poetic movement develops a certain idiom for its subject matter and then comes to identify that idiom with the subject itself. In our time, sincerity of sentiment is the accepted subject matter of verse and its proper occasions recognized in such autobiographical situations as family difficulties, personal despair, political protest, and divorce. So that our contemporary poetry can hardly do without such words and phrases as empty, bitter, alone, O father, this year again, you, nightmare, and so on, and if a poet renounces these familiar rhetorical turns he must content himself with at least a temporary neglect.
And just as a contemporary poet will argue that his idiom is precise, so would a Romantic poet argue for his. A fixed idiom acquires a precision of connotation within a certain period; certain words become indicators of attitudes whose intellectual content is well-known in their generation. Then the familiar attitudes are absorbed into emotional and intellectual history, and the words begin to indicate new attitudes. Wordsworth’s noun evening and T. S. Eliot’s evening almost belong to two different languages, yet Eliot’s usage has absorbed part of Words worth’s and to some extent depends upon it.
Seas and Inland Journeys explores at length a single complex of Romantic imagery which portrays the individual spirit against a backdrop of infinite nature. From the works of Poe, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats and others, Applewhite selects scenes such as we would find in a picture gallery of works by Turner, Constable, Casper David Friedrich, Peter De Wint, Thomas Girtin, Joseph Wright of Derby, and even by Gainsborough. Here in the poets are the broad cloud wild skies, the beaten and lonely towers beside the turbulent waters, the mountain crags, and the forest wastes—”Horrid with fem and intricate with thorn,” as Dryden wrote. Against these enormities is set the figure of man or some evidence of the works of man, the human spirit isolate within infinity.
This landscape also connotes, Applewhite finds, the conscious rational mind reflecting upon its prime val unconscious origins. The image presented is one of contrast, the small against the vast, the mortal against the timeless. But this contrast is only part of the idea, for the two elements interpenetrate one another. “The dream of the Romantic self’s approach to the not-self of nature depends upon just this obscure intuition that the self and the not-self, at some deep enough level, are coextensive and correspond.”
What was it then that happened? What caused the downslide into modernist poetry? The fact, says Applewhite, that the modern poet began using the tools of analysis in his creative work and, in effect, went over to the side of the enemy. “The presence within the modern poet of an alien rationality, of the masculine pure reason of an Apollonius at the feast of poor Lamia has provided both a dazzling clarity of analysis and expression and has threatened to initiate a potentially fatal disunity within the total personality, setting reason at odds with imagination, skepticism against the impulse toward faith, surgical self consciousness against the impulse to ward synthesis.”
James Applewhite is himself a brilliant poet, and his conclusion here is so apprehensive that a reader may feel it has autobiographical as well as intellectual basis.
He chooses as example of the disunified personality Poe’s deeply romantic, icily intellectual, detective Auguste Dupin. “Purely conscious Dupin has looked upon irrational ape with cold calculation. The ape, misunderstood, has responded without rage and violence.”
His proposition seems true enough, though a bit awkward. Dupin had little connection with the natural landscape. Perhaps we might remember more clearly that favorite subject of Romantic painting, the Falls at Reichenbach in the Swiss Alps. Turner’s studies of it are only the most famous of a famous lot. And it was here that A. Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes to his death, locked in the deadly embrace of his evil counterpart, Professor Moriarty, that obscene avatar of the primordial unconscious. Moriarty is not a very cheerful representative of the unconscious, but then we are not always at liberty to choose what the infinite may send to us.
Applewhite has demonstrated what the Romantics knew, that we had better be receptive.
[Seas and Inland Journeys: Landscape and Consciousness From Wordsworth to Roethke, by James Applewhite; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press]